Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Welcome to Me

Welcome to Me (2015; dir. Shira Piven) totters between being a comedy that explores the problems of a woman with “borderline personality disorder” and comedy that ridicules and makes fun of that woman.  Kristen Wiig’s acting is superb.  She excels in playing characters who border on, or are well past, the line of dysfunctionality—consider the SNL skits about the check-out woman at Target, or the genetic mutant (or whatever she is) in the parody of the Lennon Sisters on Lawrence Welk.  Yet there is not much empathy in such parodies—they show little awareness that whatever their social and genetic malformations may be, these people are human beings who in the real world undoubtedly suffer for their disabilities and for the way other people react to them.  Welcome to Me doesn’t offer much empathy for its character either. After the first half hour or so it begins to seem like a Saturday Night Live skit that ran too long, and the film becomes exploitationist comedy.  It is never consistently any one thing.  It’s sympathetic to Alice Klieg, the central character, even as it invites us to snicker at her desire to have a talk show just like Oprah’s.  When she wins the lottery, she decides to use her winnings to have her own talk show.  She calls it Welcome to Me.  Do we feel sorry for her when she decides to use her $86 million to pay for the talk show, do we laugh at her for her total lack of self-awareness, do we condemn her narcissistic self-obsessions?  Alice is a demanding self-centered woman.  She needs friends, but mainly she needs them only because they support her and reassure her about the paths she takes.  She deeply resents those who have wronged her and uses her TV show to attack them.  Her show, produced by a cheesy cable channel on the verge of bankruptcy, documents her eccentric interests and resentments.  At one point she spends a week of episodes neutering cats and dogs.  Eventually she breaks down and is committed to a hospital after wandering naked through a casino.
With therapy and medication, Alice recovers, to an extent, and uses the last episode of her talk show to apologize to her best friend, whom she has especially taken advantage of.  She gives her all that is left of her lottery winnings, $7 million, and is back to where she started—no money and still emotionally broken. 

What does this film accomplish?  Despite moments of promise, it’s unfocused and meandering and self-indulgent and though superficially it might invite us to feel sympathetic towards Alice instead at heart what it wants is for us to laugh at her.

Top Five

Halfway through Top Five (2014, dir. Chris Rock) I began to recognize echoes of an earlier film, Stardust Memories (1980; dir. Woody Allen).  The echoes were both of what the films are about—comic artists who want to make serious films—as well as in style.  Both Rock and Allen employ self-deprecating humor and satire in their comic routines and films, and in Top Five Rock’s willingness to make fun of the character he plays is especially evident. I don’t mean that Top Five borrows directly from Allen’s film, but the earlier film was clearly an influence.  I thought this insight, when I had it, was a good one, but soon after discovered that a number of reviewers had pointed it out as well.  It’s made expressly clear in a 2014 New Yorker profile of Rock which focused on the film:  “One of Rock’s inspirations was ‘Stardust Memories,’ the 1980 Woody Allen movie, in which Allen played Sandy Bates, a comic director who was sick of comedy. Early on, Rock has Andre repurpose Sandy Bates’s best-known line. ‘I don’t feel funny,’ he moans, and he spends the rest of the movie—which unfolds in New York, in the course of a day—explaining himself to a Times reporter, played by Rosario Dawson, while simultaneously coming to his senses, or trying to.”[1]

Oh well, so much for an original insight.

Rock is a wild and fierce comedian with an independent streak.  He speaks his mind, and sometimes runs into trouble as a result.  In this film, he aims at the entertainment industry, the American obsession with celebrity, and the typical arc of a famous actor’s career.  In the film he plays a comic actor named Andre Allen, who got his start as a stand-up comic.  He becomes most famous for playing a cop in a bear suit (“Hammy the Bear”) in three wildly popular films.  Now he is more interested in serious work and is about to premier a new film about a slave rebellion in Haiti.  Rock quickly disabuses us of the notion that Andre might be a great filmmaker.  The short scene we see from his slave rebellion film seems pretty bad.  The real focus of Top Five is on Andre and where the course of his life will go.  His great days as a comic actor may be over, and he’s no longer willing to wear bear suits.  His career, in fact, may be on the wane.  Maybe as a result his agent has scripted a marriage for him with a celebrity housewife that will keep him in the spotlight.  This is a step in Andre’s transformation from a star with talent to a celebrity.  His agent tells him that given the current state of his career he may soon find himself on “Dancing with the Stars,”  where actors with faded careers go before fading away entirely.

The real dilemma for Andre is whether he allows the celebrity vortex to suck him up or whether he can regain control of himself and retain some vestige of his own identity.  The fact that he is a recovering alcoholic complicates matters.  A reporter, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) who wants to interview him follows him around through much of the film, asking questions, gradually attracting his interest.  Then he learns that she has been writing fiercely negative reviews of his films for the New York Times under a pseudonym.  Part of the interest for me in this film is Andre’s hazy awareness that the films he has made aren’t really very good and that he has to choose between the arc of celebrity that his agent has crafted for him and his own personal satisfaction.

I liked this film.  I identified with the concerns that Rock’s character is grappling with.  Top Five harkens back to a much earlier film, the Preston Sturges comedy Sullivan’s Travels (1941), in which a director famous for his comic films decides he wants to be a “serious” director.[2] 

[2] The New York Times review of this film by Manohla Dargis also linked it to Sullivan’s Travels.  See 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, by Jon Krakauer

The strange property of Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town is its atmospheric numbingness.  It does a good enough job of narrating a series of rapes that occur at the University of Montana.  The victims are young women students of the University.  The rapists are, or are purported to be, football players for the most part.  Krakauer obviously means the example of Missoula to stand as the symbol of a much broader problem in the United States, that of the prevalence of rape not only in college campuses but in general society as well.  He focuses especially on the inability or unwillingness of the justice system—police, district attorneys, defense attorneys, court proceedings--to handle crimes of rape.
Krakauer shows how rape victims, as soon as they report their crimes, become figures of suspicion to the law enforcement system that should be defending them.  One of the first questions many police officers ask rape victims is whether they have boyfriends.  They ask this question because they suspect the victims have invented the rape as a way of getting revenge on boyfriends who have been unfaithful or who have broken up with them.  The true incidence of false rape accusations, Krakauer shows, is less than 20%.  Rape victims are never able to escape the suspicions of society at large that they somehow invented or invited their rape or could have avoided it.
Also disturbing is the sympathy that automatically seems to well up around the accused rapists, especially if they are popular athletes.
Krakauer’s descriptions of the rapes, based on interviews, testimony and first-hand accounts by the victims, are graphic, perhaps unnecessarily so.  But it is, perhaps, the graphic fact of rape—the forcible penetration of one person’s body into another’s—that accounts for the damage it does, not merely the physical damage, which in most cases heals soon enough, but the psychological damage, which can persist for years.  All of this said, Krakauer’s accounts of the rapes have a faintly prurient value.
Krakauer made his reputation writing narratives about men in confrontation with nature and their inner selves—Into the Wild (1996), Into Thin Air (1997).  In Under the Banner of Heaven (2003) he investigated many of the more extreme and scandalous aspects of the Mormon Church.  The subject matter of Missoula is significantly different.  Not that he doesn’t give it due effort, nor that he doesn’t make clear in any number of ways that his sympathies lie with the victims and that he regards rape as a horrendous crime.  But his reliance on first-person accounts, newspaper articles, courtroom transcripts, and interviews in some sense strips the author from the story.  He arranges and edits and introduces and glosses the sources he presents, but he doesn’t explore them very deeply.  Although we come to understand the damage suffered by the young women who were the victims of rape in Missoula, what we don’t understand is the nature of that particular masculine mind that commits rape, especially the athletic mind.  That aspect of the story remains a disturbing mystery.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education, by Mark Edmundson

My responses to Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education, by Mark Edmundson (Bloomsbury, 2013),  are mixed.  I appreciate Edmundson’s dedication to teaching, but not his narrow sense of what it can be.  He misjudges and underestimates contemporary students.  He is glib, flippant, and prone to jerking his knee.  Although some of his objections to the impact of technology on students and learning are apt, he doesn’t acknowledge the advantages it offers.  Finally, we can all groan and moan about the good old days when universities weren’t sprawling corporate structures, but those days are never coming back.  Those of us who might feel marginalized by the changes that continue to take place in modern universities really need to take stock and decide how to preserve and nurture what is valuable about what we do.  Only in this way can we effectively oppose the dark forces that threaten to transform universities into technocratic mind-control job creation factories.  Humanists, in particular, need to abandon their self-marginalizing defensiveness and enter aggressively into the fray and demonstrate their value to the larger university mission.

Edmundson is in a sense locked within the frame of his own life and teaching style.  It limits almost everything he says.  He assumes that teachers who make references to popular culture, who use group exercises, who encourage discussion, who flip the classroom are pandering.  I think he is right to caution about such practices, but he fails to recognize that they can actually have value.  He needs to accept that there are more teaching styles than one, and that different bodies of knowledge may require different methods of presentation in the classroom.  Change and evolution are natural, inevitable.

Yet Edmundson’s time frame is my own, and I can therefore appreciate and sometimes share his point of view, his concerns about how important advantages of teaching and of universities are being lost, about the disappearance of standards.  I believe in drawing distinctions between great ideas and works of art and shoddy, transient ephemera.  I believe it is wrong to allow students to think that all opinions (including their own) are equally worthy.

Where Edmundson really resonates with me is in his sense of teaching as a way of helping students discover themselves and the paths they will take in their lives.  He refers to this as helping students “learn how to live.”  He uses the word “transformation.”  He is specifically referring to the teaching of literature and to the notion that through literature one can discover one’s own deepest self.  I agree and fully embrace that position although I think the teaching of any subject can lead towards the same end.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Comments for May 8, 2015, Theatre and Film Studies Graduation

On behalf of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, I welcome all of you—parents, students, family members, friends, faculty, and staff--to this graduation celebration for the students of the Department of Theatre and Film Studies. This is an important moment for all of us.  If you think about it in a literal sense, graduation is a strange word.  It suggests chemical or physical measurement.  It also suggests advancement, but towards what?  Graduation is certainly a milestone (another interesting term that suggests we measure our lives with road markers, one mile, two miles, and so on).  Because of its association with education, we also know that graduation means the conferring of academic degrees.  Graduation is therefore an ending, a culmination, and a commemoration of what you’ve learned and achieved during the last four or five years of your time here at the University of Georgia. 

I don’t like this term, graduation.  I prefer a better word.  It’s the term commencement.  It also means the granting of academic degrees.  It derives from an Old French word commencier, that itself derives from Latin.  It means beginnings.  Today you begin.  You are marking the end of your studies at UGA, and the beginning of a new and exciting, challenging, frightening, inspiring and hopeful period in your existence. I wish you good fortune and satisfying, impactful lives that leave beneficial marks on our world.  So as you come to this ending, and stand on the verge of this beginning, I congratulate all of you. 

 Thank you.

Comments for May 7, 2015, Hugh Hodgson School of Music Graduation

I am here to welcome graduates of the Hugh Hodgson School of Music, their parents and other family members, their friends and colleagues.  This is an important time and a chance to pause and reflect on all you’ve achieved and of the lives you have ahead of you.  I congratulate all of you, and I congratulate and thank the staff and faculty of the Hugh Hodgson School of Music for helping you to arrive at this point.

Over the past few months I’ve been reading about the lives of many of the great composers.  Foremost among them, for me, is Beethoven, whose monumental achievement changed western music and influenced every composer who followed him. Beethoven once made a statement that in many ways sums up the importance of music and of what all of you as teachers, scholars, and performers of music, have to offer to our world.  Beethoven is reported to have said, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.”  I think that is a wonderful declaration.

I have to add, however, that my favorite statement by Beethoven is one he reportedly made after dismissing a housekeeper who was I assume his cook: “Only the pure of heart can make a good soup.” 

Once again, I extend my best wishes to all of you.  Enjoy the music, and enjoy the soup.